WASHINGTON — During a Thursday morning cable news appearance, U.S. President Donald Trump blasted the F-35’s global supply chain and hinted he might intercede to bring more work on the Lockheed Martin-made jet back to the United States.
Trump brought up the F-35 during an exchange where Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo asked how the president plans to incentivize key U.S. industries — such as pharmaceutical companies — to cut China out of their supply chain.
“I could tell you hundreds of stories of the stupidity that I’ve seen. As an example, we’re making a fighter jet. It’s a certain fighter jet, I won’t tell you which, but it happens to be the F-35,” Trump said.
“It’s a great jet, and we make parts for this jet all over the world. We make them in Turkey, we make them here, we’re going to make them there. All because President [Barack] Obama and others — I’m not just blaming him — thought it was a wonderful thing,” he said. “The problem is if we have a problem with a country, you can’t make the jet. We get parts from all over the place. It’s so crazy. We should make everything in the United States.”
“Could we do it?” Bartiromo asked.
“Yeah, we’re doing it because I’m changing all those policies,” Trump said. “Look, we make F-35s — very important, the greatest jet in the world — where the main body of the jet is made in Turkey and then sent here.”
But if that relationship breaks down, Turkey could refuse to give the United States key F-35 components, Trump said.
It was unclear whether Trump actually plans to take action to move additional elements of F-35 back to the United States.
In a statement to Defense News, Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews said the Pentagon has no comment and referred questions on Trump’s statements to the White House.
“The Department remains fully committed to the F-35 program, and maintaining a competitive edge with its unique, unmatched 5th generation capabilities. We will continue to aggressively reduce F-35 cost, incentivize Industry to meet required performance, and deliver advanced capabilities to our warfighters at the best value to our taxpayers." he said.
A spokesman for Lockheed referred questions to the Defense Department.
It’s worth noting that while Trump got many broad assertions about the program right, not all of his statements about the F-35 stand up to scrutiny. Here’s a point-by-point explainer:
Global participation is baked into the very foundation of the Joint Strike Fighter program.
The Joint Strike Fighter program — which stems from efforts started in the 1990s — was structured not only to produce planes for the U.S. military but also for key allies. Nations that wanted to be “partners” on the program would help foot the bill for developing the jet in exchange for work producing components on the program.
There were several benefits to this structure. From an operational perspective, it would ensure that many of the Pentagon’s closest allies were using the same jet, making it easier to send information and coordinate military engagements.
From an industrial perspective, having a deep, multilayered global supply chain would theoretically make F-35 production less prone to disruption, and it could make it easier for Lockheed to distribute parts to sustain the jet worldwide.
There were also economic advantages for the United States. Having so much international buy-in ensured future sales, which benefited U.S. defense manufacturers and the Defense Department, which can buy its planes more cheaply due to economies of scale.
Originally there were nine partner nations on the program: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. However, the United States expelled Turkey from the program last year after the country purchased the Russian S-400 air defense system.
President Barack Obama and his predecessors weren’t really to blame for the globalized structure of the program.
Historically — at least until Trump — a president hasn’t publicly interfered in the F-35 program. The Obama administration was broadly supportive of the F-35, continuing to finance the program even as it hit a number of technical snags that caused cost and schedule to balloon. However, the structure of the program and much of the F-35 supply chain was already set in stone before Obama was sworn into office in 2009.
Lockheed Martin won the Joint Strike Fighter contract in 2001 after producing a prototype version of the F-35 known as the X-35 and facing off against Boeing’s X-35 demonstrator. At that point, the company would have already cemented much of its supply chain as part of the process of preparing a proposal for the competition. The first F-35 flew in 2006.
While there have been changes to the F-35 supply chain since the jet went into production, the more major changes have occurred during block upgrades, when legacy technologies are swapped out for cheaper, improved versions. One example is the transition of the distributed aperture system from a Northrop Grumman to Raytheon product during the upcoming 15th lot of F-35 production.
Turkey has an industrial role in building the F-35, and that’s changing on the U.S. government’s terms.
Trump’s assertion that Turkey could deny the United States key F-35 components doesn’t reflect the current status quo, as it’s the U.S. Defense Department that is working to expel Turkey from the program.
While it is true that Turkey, as an international partner on the F-35 program, helps to manufacture the jet and build key components, Trump has overstated the role played by Turkey. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Turkey makes about 1,000 different components for the F-35.
The Pentagon is set to stop awarding F-35-related contracts to Turkish firms this year. According the GAO, the Defense Department already identified alternate suppliers for all components currently made in Turkey, and the department is working with those suppliers to speed up production.
When Trump talks about Turkey building the “main body” of the jet, he is talking about the center fuselage, some of which are built by Turkish Aerospace Industries. However, TAI is only the secondary supplier of the center fuselage, with Northrop Grumman making that component for the majority of F-35s. It is very likely that Northrop will take over production of that structure until another supplier is found to replace TAI.
Updated 5/14/20 with statements from the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin.
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.